VoS BtS 3: Editing Process

March 17th, 2015 by Potato

[Back to the first post in the Value of Simple self-publishing behind-the-scenes series]

As an editor in my day job, I have to say that editing can make a huge difference in the professionalism of your book and in the clarity of your message.

Getting eyeballs on drafts is the best way to improve something, but you have to keep in mind whose eyeballs they are. A professional editor may not be an expert in your book’s genre1, but will help spot and ruthlessly correct errors and ambiguities. Friends are a fantastic resource because they’re often willing to work for peanuts2, but they’re also not likely to be comfortable making criticisms (constructive or otherwise) for fear of hurting your feelings. However, anything a friend hints that they may not fully understand is likely a point that needs a re-write for clarity.

I like the concept of beta readers: people who read an early version of the book and critique it (sometimes what they heart, mostly what they don’t like or get). Your beta readers should include your target audience: if it’s an introductory guide to personal finance, then you’re going to need some people who are fairly naive on that subject. Experts may already know TFSAs inside and out, so their eyes may gloss over your particular bunny-based explanation of how they work and miss any issues, whereas a newbie will tell you if the analogy works or not (especially if you quiz them on what they retained). But you also need some experts to help spot errors.

I don’t think the beta reader/peer-review model is catching on as much as it should, which is a shame. It does require some indulgence from your friends and colleagues, and in return you need to give them enough time to actually read your book — at least a month, and more like three. That can be a big delay on your timeline if you weren’t ready for it, but it’s also a great time to let the first draft cool.

A critical part of editing is that you have to be able to spot weaknesses in the first draft and be willing to make changes even if they’re painful — you may be particularly attached to a certain joke, but if no one else finds it funny or notices there’s even an attempt at humour in there, then it’s no good keeping it in. Or you may be thinking about how much work you put into looking up a certain fact or crafting a certain paragraph, and don’t want to cut it even though it impedes the flow around it. I find that a cooling-off period lets the short-term memories of actually writing parts of the book fade enough that I can treat them objectively and work to improve them — even if that means ripping them apart.

So with re-reads and making changes, parcelling out copies to beta readers, accepting and discussing their feedback, and making rewrites, the editing process can take a lot of time — more3 time than writing the thing in the first place did!

In addition to beta readers, a professional editor can really help sharpen your language, get rid of distracting errors, and restructure the document. In my case I work with editors, and was fortunate enough that they were willing to give the book a detailed read-through in exchange for keeping the office snack area well-stocked with wasabi cashews. Not quite literally working for peanuts, but as good as. And their feedback was great — in addition to spotting all the little typos and awkward sentences with their eagle eyes, they suggested that I reorganize the book into about four defined sections — the first version was a collection of short chapters that didn’t have a great flow between them or an overarching idea linking them into a unit other than “this will be handy for learning to invest.” I ended up creating three sections: an introduction, which was focused on quickly bringing in important concepts; an applications section, which was to be the practical step-by-step guide forming the core of the book; and an advanced discussion section, which would focus on particular issues, topics that were a bit more complex, and then tie the whole thing up.

Once I had that three-part structure — even though putting it in place was just a few headings and short introductory paragraphs — it became a lot easier to navigate the book and see how it should be laid out. Many chapters got reorganized after that, in particular the part on Norbert’s gambit which originally followed right on the heels of ETF investing, but it was really complex and confusing. So in addition to tweaking the chapter itself, it got pushed back to the advanced section with a healthy disclaimer, so it would be clear that readers could safely ignore it if they were confused. Likewise, the Automation chapter was originally buried in the end matter, but when I was talking about the book and how to invest, automation kept coming up as a central part of the approach, so it just made sense for that to be the close of the Putting it into Practice section.

Enlisting the help of an editor can be a harder sell as a self-publisher when you’re not one yourself and can’t entice your colleagues with foodstuff: if you have to pay out of pocket to do it you need to try to put a value on it. Books riddled with errors certainly do sell — sometimes well, even — but it will be a distraction, often one that makes it into a review. It’s better to be clean and polished, but how much better? If you’re only going to net $1000 from your book no matter it’s polish, it’s hard to justify spending nearly that much on editing. It’s extra hard when many of us are vaguer than a per-word price quote, as the cost to edit will depend on how much work each manuscript is, meaning you may not even know the exact price up front. For the Value of Simple, which started fairly clean, I’d probably have charged myself several hundred dollars to edit it. As a self-publisher with a small audience that would be a tough value proposition: I know I would have had to sleep on it before hiring myself. The book is certainly a better product for all the work of beta readers and my editorial team, but to the extent that it would sell 50% more copies? A manuscript needing more work would take more hours to fix, and possibly cost more — though then it might need it more, and get more value out of the service.

For this project, I was all over the beta reader concept. Some people get paranoid about sharing early, but you can’t really keep a book secret for long, and there isn’t much point — you’re going to publish it at some point, and you want people to be looking forward to it. So I sought out some people who could help make the book good. The phenotypes I targeted were:

    1) Colleagues and friends who fit the target audience (i.e. not do-it-yourself investors while not being afraid of money). They could tell me if anything was unclear and help spot typos and fix the language.
    2) Financial planners and bloggers — experts — who could evaluate the simple plan I laid out to make sure I wasn’t leading people totally astray or leaving out something hugely important. Indeed, spotting what is missing is one of the hardest parts of substantive editing, and will likely take a lot of eyeballs before it’s caught.

About 65% of people I tried to enlist as beta readers responded with feedback, so be sure to get more than just one or two beta readers as you will have a few who can’t find the time or will just say something nice but unhelpful like “looks great, can’t wait!” I did keep a few readers in my back pocket for the second iteration, so someone could see it with fresh eyes after the improvements from the first draft were implemented.

Then we went through the rounds of edits, really firmed up the material (and added chapters), and off it went to the reviewers to start building some buzz. One of whom was Michael (of Michael James on Money fame), which reminded me that I didn’t get a math guy to look at it. So it was fortunate that he didn’t just skim through the book to write a review for his blog, but really checked my figures in detail, like a beta reader or editor would. I want to mention two issues he identified — while neither one broke a thesis or would change the recommendations, it was good that he caught them while there was still plenty of time to fix them, and kind of highlights some changes that can come from the editing process.

The first was my own goof: I came up with a spreadsheet to calculate the figures to back up some important point. The numbers came to about what I was expecting, I copied the results down, and was off to the races. Well, Michael actually found an error in my figures, which let me find a mistake in the formula used to generate those figures and create a graph. So I reworked it with fresh eyes and double- and triple-checked the math. For the average reader the error is of no consequence — in fact, the point I was trying to make is stronger than I originally made it out to be — but it makes me feel a lot better to have it done right in the final version. This was like scientific peer review at its best.

The second illustrates how something that’s totally reasonable in your head doesn’t translate to understanding for the reader. When it came to describing the typical fees on a mutual fund in Canada, I didn’t want to confuse the reader with by being too technical, or to be too precise. I figured it’s high, we all know it’s high, so let’s just move along. At different points in the book I said that the average MER was “over 2%” and “nearly 2.5%” — both of which are oblique ways to describe an average fee somewhere in the range of 2-2.5% (with 2.4% being the specific figure in my head). I’ve seen different figures from different sources, and I didn’t want to just pick one study or report as the definitive one. However, that vagueness crossed the line into an inconsistency that might cause confusion (or make the reader think I didn’t actually know), so I had to pick a source and a final number, or at least settle on one consistent way to describe it. For equity funds, Morningstar’s “Global Fund Investor Experience” 2013 report puts the average MER at 2.42%, which I suppose is as good a figure to settle on as any, and this the citation you’ll find in the final version.

And this is a great place to thank my invaluable beta readers:

  • Jill Bressmer
  • Dr. Carrie-Lynn Keiski
  • Dr. Margaret Kinyanjui
  • Kelly Robertson
  • Ben Pakuts, also responsible for the wonderful cover art
  • Sandi Martin
  • Kyle Prevost
  • Shelly
  • Michael Wiener

  • 1. Indeed, there are different types of editors. I read one book a while ago that claimed to have had multiple professional editorial passes, and while the micro-editing was good — free of typos and grammar errors with minimal passive voice — the content was full of errors and just simply not worth reading. While you want to make it easy for your beta readers and early reviewers to read by being clean (so they don’t get distracted by minor issues), save a professional copyedit for closer to the end and focus on substantive and style editing first.
    2. Or wasabi-coated cashews as the case may be.
    3. On the calendar if not in time at the keyboard, as I was taking more time off work at the writing phase.

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